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Revising Web-based Newspaper Articles Without Informing Readers:

On Wednesday, I wrote a brief post on ACORN's lawsuit against those who made and distributed the now-infamous undercover videotapes of ACORN staff. In the post, I linked to a Washington Post story on the suit. Today, however, I learned that the story at that link is no longer the same as when I made my initial Wednesday post. As noted in an early comment on my post, the original story included the following:

In an exclusive interview with the Post, founder Wade Rathke said conservative claims that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is a "criminal enterprise" that misuses federal and donor funds for political ends -- a claim contained in a report by House Republicans -- are a "complete fabrication." He said exaggeration and conjecture about the group are being passed off daily on cable television and web-site blogs as documented fact.

"It's balderdash on top of poppycock," said Rathke, who was forced out last year amid an embezzlement scandal involving his brother.

Portions from this passage no longer appear in the story as it now appears on the Post website. Now the relevant portion of the story simply reads:
Meanwhile, the departed founder of ACORN said many of the accusations about the group are distortions meant to undermine President Obama and other Democrats.

In an interview, Rathke said conservative claims that ACORN is a "criminal enterprise" that misuses federal and donor funds for political ends -- an allegation contained in a report by House Republicans -- are a "complete fabrication." He said exaggeration and conjecture about the group are being passed off daily on cable television and blogs as documented fact.

Missing are the reference to the "embezzlement scandal" or the colorful quote. Gone as well is the mention of an "exclusive" interview. Yet there is no acknowledgment anywhere in the story that it was edited.

So, the Washington Post published a story on its website, revised the story to omit details that appeared in the relevant piece, and yet did not disclose these facts to the Post's online readers. Isn't this a problem? There may well have been valid reasons for revising the story. Perhaps an editor thought the story got relevant facts wrong or concluded reference to the embezzlement scandal was unfair. Whatever the reason for the change, the Post should have disclosed that changes were made and that it had decided to excise information included in the original story.

This is not the first time I've noticed the web site of a prominent news organization failing to disclose that it had edited the web-based version of a story after initial publication. The NYT, for example, did it when reporting on the Administration's decision to abandon a planned missile defense of Poland and the Czech Republic, as I noted in an update to this post. Is this now common practice? If so, it seems to be a major failing. Responsible bloggers routinely disclose anything more than the most minor stylistic and typographical revisions to published posts. I would think newspaper websites could do the same. Indeed, shouldn't newspapers at least match the disclosure norms observed by bloggers? After all, they're the real journalists.

conlaw2 (mail):
I've seen the NYT do this before. To me, it looks like the newspapers are rushing to break news and in so doing they encourage the writers to shoot from the hip. Mostly it is the case as you noticed, where an article goes from being a sum of quotes and facts, to being more organized and readable. I don't think it is necessary to inform readers if the original article was not wrong or misleading. No different than having two articles in the newspaper on the same issue by the same writer on back-to-back days.
9.25.2009 4:44pm
Suzy (mail):
I agree. Once you've published it out there, it's out there. On the local newspaper site I frequent, even if a story is developing rapidly throughout the day, they usually attach a note indicating that this is a developing story, and that this article is an updated version of the earlier story published at [date/time].
9.25.2009 4:45pm
ShelbyC:
News based web sites like cnn.com do this as a matter of general practice and have for years. It seems a little less natural for newspaper web sites, because we think of a newspaper article as a "static" thing.
9.25.2009 4:45pm
troll_dc2 (mail):
I've seen Post stories on the Internet that look different when they hit print; then the on-line paper replaces the earlier version with the later one. It would be good if it kept the earlier one as well, but that's life.
9.25.2009 4:47pm
rarango (mail):
While the practice smells bad to me, they arent doing anything the congress critters do when they revise and extend their oral commentary in speeches and hearings for the written record.
9.25.2009 4:56pm
David Welker (www):
I imagine they don't mention updates for aesthetic reasons.

Whether I think it is proper or not would depend on how important the change was.
9.25.2009 4:56pm
markv (mail):
I have seen this happen all too often on the internet, both from news sites and campaign sites. Now I always PDF the article and save it on my computer. May seem tedious or unnecessary, but a good portion of my referenced articles during the last election cycle were either altered or removed from the web. It was worth the effort.
9.25.2009 5:00pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
"Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past" - George Orwell's 1984

- Inadvertently made the same quote on the first reference.
9.25.2009 5:01pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
It is common practice, and the remedy would be to post date/time stamps for "created" and "last modified", but not all sites support that (yet). We might join in pressuring them to add the feature.

I don't think we need to go as far as the Wikipedia-like revision history log. :)
9.25.2009 5:03pm
Don Cruse (www):
This is one way in which Wikipedia is superior to the online newspaper.

On Wikipedia, although the main story evolves over time, you can always click back through a changelog and see any particular prior version. Each version has a permalink, so you can cite to a particular version with confidence that your readers will always see the same text you're discussing. (Academics and judges seem to rarely actually use those permalinks when citing wikipedia, but that's another story.)

There's no aesthetic reason the NY Times or a newspaper of similar stature couldn't institute the same thing for its online articles. As its own editors or authors make changes, those go into a changelog that readers can view or can cite directly. As a bonus, the main story text wouldn't be littered with strikethroughs and insertions.
9.25.2009 5:10pm
NYC Esq.:

I don't think it is necessary to inform readers if the original article was not wrong or misleading.


How would anyone know whether the original article really wasn't wrong or misleading, if the newspaper gives no explanation for the change?
9.25.2009 5:14pm
Disintelligentsia (mail):
What I find interesting is not the stuff that was eliminated, but what was added


Meanwhile, the departed founder of ACORN said many of the accusations about the group are distortions meant to undermine President Obama and other Democrats.

There are no statements, in the original material or the redacted material, where the founder of ACORN related the "distortions" back to Obama and other Democrats.

It appears the changes generally are pro-ACORN. They negate the embezzlement charges and then deflect the actual criticism if ACORN into something that is mere political grist (as if it had no foundation). The change appeals to our base tribal instinct. They're appealing to groupthink - if a person is a Democrat then their instinct is to doubt any source that attacks the group.
9.25.2009 5:32pm
conlaw2 (mail):
NYC I think you are missing the point, if the article is correct( if quotes are attributed to the right people and so forth) I don't see a problem with offering people a better story, without their being a log of it, the color each writer adds is nice, but means little more than a font choice.

If your belief is that the NYT is hiding incorrect articles by editing them, then I agree, these changes should be noted. But as I understand that is not what prof. Adler is suggesting.
9.25.2009 5:37pm
Brian K (mail):
It appears the changes generally are pro-ACORN. They negate the embezzlement charges and then deflect the actual criticism if ACORN into something that is mere political grist (as if it had no foundation).

you mean to tell me the whole ACORN scandal is pure politics? you can actually say that with a straight face?

what is your opinion on the scooter libby investigation? or the CIA torture investigations. something tells me you think they have no foundation.
9.25.2009 5:39pm
ArthurKirkland:

Is this now common practice?


Newspapers have published multiple daily editions -- and revised, spiked or added stories from edition to edition -- for decades, perhaps a century.
9.25.2009 5:50pm
Disintelligentsia (mail):
Brian K -


you mean to tell me the whole ACORN scandal is pure politics? you can actually say that with a straight face?

what is your opinion on the scooter libby investigation? or the CIA torture investigations. something tells me you think they have no foundation.


I presume you meant to say "you mean to tell me the whole ACORN scandal isn't pure politics?"

The issue with ACORN is there are multiple criminal investigations of ACORN ongoing - by both D's and R's. Several ACORN employees have already been found guilty and more indictments will likely follow. Further, the founder's brother apparently embezzled over $1,000,000.00 from ACORN and then there's the recent video showing corruption. Is there a political angle? Almost certainly -- ACORN is closely aligned with Obama and the Democrats so their political opponents will want to seize on this association. Each side attempts to get traction with whatever it can. However, my point was not whether or not it was political, but rather, the slant of the changes was pro-ACORN from a supposedly "neutral" news source and the writer putting words in the mouth of the ACORN founder. There are no quotes stating what the writer summarized him saying.

As to Libby and the CIA torture investigations. My beefs there would be that there was no question as to the criminality of what Libby did in "leaking" Plame's name. He wasn't convicted of that but of lying to the FBI about it. As to the torture investigation - I have no ultimate problem with an investigation being conducted as long as its above-the-board and not politicized. However, the fact that Holder did not even go so far as to read the memos that the prior investigators wrote (which did not support continued investigation) indicates a more political motive for the investigation. If something was illegal about their methods, then I say bring it to light and prosecute but if it's a dog-and-pony show then I say don't bother wasting government resources on it. Perhaps he should release the memos that stated there was nothing criminal in what was done and that could clear up whether his motives are pure or not.
9.25.2009 6:11pm
CurlyDave (mail):
I don't think it is necessary to inform readers if the original article was not wrong or misleading.

I see a very strong reason to inform readers of each revision.

It has become commonplace to link to articles from "mainstream" sources because they have copyright based objections to copy and paste. So we link and then they change the story at the link.

It seems to me, this nullifies their copyright based objections to cut and paste. If the same link leads to two different stories, which one is copyrighted? I recognize they both can be copyrighted, but the link is, or should be, an unambiguous reference to a single item. They can't both be copyrighted with the same unambiguous description.
9.25.2009 6:12pm
Newsreader:
I used to live in a city where the early editions of BOTH major daily newspapers hit the news-stands before the bars closed.

Sometimes, eating “breakfast” at 3am, over the paper, I'd read some fascinating story.

Later, at home, I'd reread the same story —reliably delivered to my doorstep— and it'd be different!

WOW.


 

 

 

I don't subscribe to any print papers anymore.
9.25.2009 7:44pm
ChrisTS (mail):
I think the real 'story,' here, is that a paper which has been aiming more to the conservative readership changed a story so as to appeal (I assume) more to the liberal readership.

Or, is that the reason for the concern?
9.25.2009 8:09pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
I've noticed that the AP updates stories if they get new info, and sometimes they'll create a new story that has the new info at the top and the rest of the old story at the bottom.

And, the WaPo did something similar before the election (link, more on that reporter here).
9.25.2009 8:44pm
Geoff Capp (mail) (www):
Reuters and AP both generally seem to tag updated stories with a summary of the changes, especially if the change was substantive (e.g., we said 30,000, but it was actually 3,000). The only time I've seen the NYT do anything similar is on spelling errors in proper names, as in this article on Carl Jung's Red Book. Which is part of why I tend to prefer the wire services over the newspapers.
9.25.2009 9:11pm
madawaskan (mail):


When you compare the omissions from The Washington Post particularly the edit of this-said Rathke, who was forced out last year amid an embezzlement scandal involving his brother and the example Jonathan Adler noticed at The New York Times-why is it that both of the edits make the story more favorable to Democrats?

Coincidence?
9.25.2009 9:30pm
HatlessHessian (mail):
I'm just a lowly middle class tax mule (one who pays out so the elites can seize my earnings and give it to pay off the lower class parasites). Please explain for me Mr. Rathke's commentary:

"It's balderdash on top of poppycock," said Rathke

Is this some kind of secret trust-fund child language? Why is it I feel this amazing urge to raise my pinky finger when I hear those words? And is one required to wear white shoes before uttering such remarkable language?
9.25.2009 9:37pm
Brian K (mail):
Thanks for confirming my hypothesis! your choice of facts and interpretation were very interesting and revealing.
9.25.2009 10:02pm
Brian K (mail):
why is it that both of the edits make the story more favorable to Democrats?

Coincidence?


given the tone of postings since the election started, it's mostly because if the story was changed to be more favorable to the republicans no one would deem it important enough to comment on.
9.25.2009 10:07pm
Constant (mail):
On Sept. 9-10 I noticed a mismatch between different versions of a single AP article which revealed both the liberal feelings of the reporter and the editorial effort to eliminate any evidence of such feelings. The three versions I saw started like so:

earliest (with feeling): "WASHINGTON (AP) -- The nastiness of August reached from the nation's town halls into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as President Barack Obama tried to move his health care plan forward...."

later (eliminating the feeling): "WASHINGTON (AP) -- A South Carolina Republican lawmaker shouted "You lie" at President Barack Obama as he addressed Congress on Wednesday, prompting a GOP senator to call for an apology."

last (factual update): "Democrats and Republicans alike are denouncing Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting "You lie" at President Barack Obama during his speech to Congress, an extraordinary breach of decorum for which the South Carolina Republican swiftly apologized."

Apart from updating the content with additional developments, what can be clearly seen between the first and second versions is a removal of language that does more to express the reporter's clearly very liberal feelings and interpretations than to report on observable events. Additionally, the title also changed between the second and third versions. The first title was false:

"Obama heckled by GOP during speech: 'You lie!' "

This assigns to the entire GOP the actions of one man, so this is a great and partisan misrepresentation of what happened. The later title is true:

"Lawmakers denounce 'You lie' outburst at Obama"

I happen to have these quotes because at the time I emailed a friend about it.
9.25.2009 11:56pm
ArthurKirkland:
As one Conspirator is fond of observing, people can vote with their feet (or browsers).

Changes of the type described don't bother me, but if a publisher doesn't meet a reader's standard in this regard, the reader is free to leave and not return.

For example, an author on this site today indicated that a mistake had been made concerning a law school affiliation, and changed the content but failed to tell readers what had been removed. Scrubbed, some might say. Or whitewashed.

For those whose exacting standards are not consistent with that type of editing . . . see ya.
9.26.2009 12:41am
William Dix (mail):
The fact the Post does that is no surprise to me. And it's something I've seen the Washington post do in the past. I've seen entire stories along with the associated comments disappear and then reappear with substantial changes.

And IMO it is a pretty sleazy way of doing edits.

Also let me observe that the few times I've posted comments on the NYTimes website opinion pieces I've found them to be a pretty inconsistent in their moderation practices. I've seen comments that where not in any way different from mine get approved while the comment I made sits in their moderation queue till it disappears.
9.26.2009 1:15am
Turk Turon (mail):
About a year ago the NYT web-posted a story claiming that Sarah Palin's husband was an ex-Army Special Forces sniper. This was subsequently deleted without comment, but I believe the original can still be found with Google.
9.26.2009 10:05am
yarrrrr (mail):
During the 2008 election, it was amazing how often I would click on a story from my rss reader or from google news and see how the headline was changed... usually to make it harsher on McCain-Palin or republicans in general...
9.26.2009 10:42am
guest again:
I don't agree that the change makes the story more favorable to Democrats. The colorful quote about poppycock and balderdash was funny, but the shorter summary is no less accurate without it. Rathke's "complete fabrication" claim is still preposterous. And the throwaway comment about the brother's embezzlement wasn't that germane . . . tho as my own brother is sitting in jail right now after a second DUI, perhaps I am unduly sensitive to a person's being judged by his brother's actions.
9.26.2009 10:48am
anonymously biking a'loud (mail):
as if hardcopy newspapers link errata to original articles? does NYT link page 2 corrections to original articles within their archives or are we led to fact-check every claim? news=gossip until a jury says otherwise....
9.26.2009 12:10pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
What Arthur Kirkland said (both posts). Newspapers have updated stories from edition to edition since the invention of the high-speed rotary press.

I suppose none of you guys is old enough to have actually heard a newsboy shouting 'Extry! Extry! Read all abaht it!' but don't you watch old movies?
9.26.2009 2:36pm
Mike S.:
"Editor edits story" is about as close to a nonstory as you can get. What do you think they hire editors for? It is true that law journals do their editing prepublication, but the closer to real-time reporting you get the more likely that the editing gets done after the first release. This was true back when daily papers had multiple editions, and true on the web.
9.26.2009 8:53pm
ReaderY:
Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1984!
9.26.2009 9:47pm
lucklucky (mail):
"I suppose none of you guys is old enough to have actually heard a newsboy shouting 'Extry! Extry! Read all abaht it!' but don't you watch old movies?"

Extra! extra! is already telling the readers that at least one piece was changed or added.

No one bothered if the Washington Post left a note saying it changed the piece. And if it was a correction it should write that it was a correction.
9.27.2009 1:11am
skullduggery:
Refocusing on Adler's original point: I believe news websites should, at a minimum, indicate whether an article was modified.

The New York Times is the only paper I regularly read online. While I haven't been checking to see if they secretly update articles, I've noticed a lot of notes that begin "This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:" at the bottom of articles. A search of nytimes.com for that phrase yields 97,300 results. Many of these corrections even go beyond correcting a minor misspelling of someone's name. Other commenters have brought up a wiki-style version history. That could be interesting but the NYT notification method would be ridiculously easy for other news sites to adopt.
9.27.2009 5:40am
Ryan Waxx (mail):
And the throwaway comment about the brother's embezzlement wasn't that germane . . . tho as my own brother is sitting in jail right now after a second DUI, perhaps I am unduly sensitive to a person's being judged by his brother's actions.


If you were being quoted on the propriety of DUI's while your brother was in jail for one, then hell yes it's germane.

And if you're commenting on the validity of an investigation into ACORN, then hell yes having a brother forced out because of a similar investigation is germane.
9.27.2009 7:49am

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